Ottoman Through the Window of Photograpy

Written by Kamil Fırat

The Ottoman State welcomed photography enthusiastically in 1839. And then? Here is what photography represented in Ottoman lands with examples from sultan’s secret archive.

I would like to begin my words on photography perception in the Ottoman era with a striking anecdote. Years ago, I was invited to provide information on photography equipment and photographs found in Dolmabahçe Palace storage. The material before me was utterly exciting. There were numerous stereoscopic photographs shot at various destinations in the world, including Niagara Falls and Egyptian Pyramids. It was peculiar that these photographs were found at the palace. The Ottoman State, struggling with various issues at that period, was curious about the world and regarded photography as a means to follow the world. The interest Ottoman palace took in photography at its early period was partly due to this.

In the 19th century when photography was in the limelight all around the world, the first article on photography in the Ottoman was published in ‘Takvim-i Vekayi’ newspaper on the issue dated 28 October 1839, around the same time with the world… This instance demonstrates that the Ottoman closely followed the developments in the world, and established relations with what is deemed interesting. Another fact is that Ottoman did not have a conservative approach towards photography. Although in the West -even due to economic reasons- Church declared photography to be an invention of the devil, Muslim Ottoman Palace adopted photography which is significant.

Photography was fairly developed and established in the Ottoman following the first experiments in 1840s. Ottomans had already realized the importance of photography in creating documents. In addition to photographs of institutions such as government offices, mines, hospitals; views from streets, photographs of criminals and portraits show us that photography was utilized in journalism, education, criminology and medicine fields in Istanbul.

The reasons upper classes in Ottoman took interest in photography… As a reflection of Westernization moves, photography becoming a status indicator in Ottoman was an important reason. Because wealthy families in the Ottoman took interest in fotoğrafçılıphotography just like in the West. The tradition of having paintings made as an indicator of nobility was gradually replaced by photography. Similarly in Ottoman, wealthy families of Istanbul started opting for photography because photography offered both a more practical and cheaper solution. Photography became cheaper only centuries later. As a result it became widespread in public.

Another vital element which led to development of Ottoman photography was the interest Western travelers, painters and photographers took in Turkish lands, and especially Istanbul. What underlies was undoubtedly the orientalist view that shaped the Western writer and artists’ perception of the East. Ottoman had always been a mysterious destination which aroused interest in the West throughout all periods. Bringing the photography knowledge he acquired in England to Istanbul, James Robertson prepared an album titled ‘Photographic Views of Constantinople’
featuring rare frames. Carlo Naya was the first foreign photographer who came from Italy and settled in Beyoğlu. Furthermore English photographer Francis Frith, Ernest de Caranza, Alfred Nicolas Normand, Pascal Sebah, Francis Bedford, Alfred de Moustier, Guillaume Berggren andmnumerous names were impressed with the riches of the Ottoman and worked their magic on the camera.

In 1850s photography, we mainly see Istanbul panoramas and works that aimed to document the city. Another crucial move in Ottoman photography was artisans and craftsmen around Pera district claiming the profession and opening photography studios. Abdullah Brothers set an important example which should be mentioned here. When photography gained traction in the Ottoman, German chemist Rabach who came to Istanbul during the 1856 Crimea War opened a photography studio in Beyazıt. Rabach who expanded his business in a short period of time, raised Kevork, Viçen and Hovsep Brothers he took in as photographers. Shortly after Rabach returned to his country, three brothers took over the studio. Brothers who improved photography significantly with their own inventions, quickly became famous all around the capital city. As people of the palace leading, the rich and the famous competed to get their photographs taken by them. Three brothers converted to Islam in the period of Abdul Hamid II and got the name Abdullah Brothers.

In the period when Ottoman made reforms to be able to compete with the West, names such as Basile Kargopoulo and Sebah, Andreomenos were famous photographers of Istanbul alongside Abdullah Brothers. Guillaume Berggren was known as the photographer of Bosporus, coasts, avenues, craftsmen, local people and city views.Berggren photographed many cities in his journeys to Anatolia during the construction of Baghdad railway. Berggren’s photographs of Ottoman architecture, historical houses, mosques, madrasah and inns received attention also from the foreigners.

In a short period of time, Muslim Turks learned about photography, initially developed by the non-Muslim community of Istanbul. There is an interesting story here about Rahmizade Bahaeddin Bediz. This Muslim citizen opened the first photography studio in the Ottoman in 1910. This photography studio titled Resna was opened on Bâb-ı Âli ramp, right across the provincial hall, and earned a reputation in a short time. Bediz, who opened two branches in Üsküdar and Bahçekapı, improved his photography know-how with the books he ordered from France. Thanks to Bediz who trained orphans in photography, most of them learned a profession.

Although Istanbul was the prime destination of fascination in the Ottoman, for most travelers the entrance gate to Anatolia was Izmir (Smyrna). A cosmopolitan city, Izmir became a main photography center of Anatolia in a short time. It was not uncommon for embassy officials and travelers who were to travel to East after arriving in Anatolia, to stay in Izmir for years. French writer Maxime du Camp developed a passion for photography to travel to East and document what he sees, and arrived first in Izmir in May 1843. Later he visited numerous cities of the Empire and took photographs. Du Camp’s photographs later inspired many of his colleagues. Many photography studios were opened in various Izmir districts following Du Camp.

Although Ottoman took great fancy to photography, it was not easy to catch up with the West because the fields of photography rapidly became varied. There is no doubt that this was an outcome of Western art tradition that had developed for thousands of years. In addition, with the technological innovations brought by the Industrial Revolution, West became the center for photography. Something similar can be said for America. Although photography was not invented in America, Americans accept photography as their national art. Another reason for this may be that the invention date of photography and founding years of USA are close.

Sizable investments in film and photography industry in America, led to establishment of Kodak, one of the biggest global brands before “digital age”. No developments took place in this field in Turkish geography, and because photography did not reach large masses neither photography industry nor archiving were developed. Except the palace archive and meager efforts of private person and organizations, valuable examples could not be produced. Also photography museums and institutes… Although photography museums were established all around the world in the years photography was invented, there are no examples to that in our country. In the 21st century various venues opened under the name “photography museum” with rather “gallery” characteristics. I hope that this file published in ‘.tr’ magazine will lead to establishment of a photography museum either in Istanbul or Izmir. Or a photography institute. Ottoman period photographs can be assorted under supervision of experts. This way we can get the chance to reread our cities’ histories through these photographs. Why not?

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Kamil Fırat

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